A Good Book Ain’t All You Need

This Friday writing post starts out with a question someone asked me on Twitter. (Look, I know–the publicity guy made me do it. I SWEAR.) Anyway, I often answer industry questions in my own little idiosyncratic way. This time someone asked me “Is writing a good book all you need to get an agent?”

Erm, well, how can I put this politely?

Oh, hell no.

A “good book” is not all you need. You also need discipline, people skills, the ability to follow directions and work well with others, patience, a thick skin–the list goes on and on. This is not easy, and the people who gain representation from agents or an editor’s attention do not “just write a good book” any more than Olympic athletes “just practice a little.”

It is important to “write a good book,” one that is as polished as you can make it. But that’s just a first step in a long journey. I won’t be talking about grammar, punctuation, or story here. I’m going to be talking about the process you need to go through to get other people excited about your work–excited enough that they will spend time and money promoting it and bringing it to other people. This is what agents and editors DO.

* First, recognize that agents and editors are not your adversaries. They are people who love books, love reading, and love the process of bringing a book to print. (They wouldn’t be doing this otherwise.) They also have to make a living, just like writers do. I’ve seen a lot of writers shoot themselves in the foot by getting combative about agents or editors. (Here’s a note to authors, aspiring and otherwise: the Internet is not private. ‘Nuff said.)

* Also, recognize that agents/editors read a LOT of CRAP. Let me tell you something. I read slush for a small press once. 97% of everything that made it past the first hoop (see below) had egregious spelling/punctuation/other errors in the first page–hell, mostly in the first paragraph. Those errors, which could have been fixed with a little bit of care, time, thought and effort, got those manuscripts ungraciously tossed. I am constantly amazed at people who think turning in a manuscript is like shooting off an email. (Or even a blog post. Ha.) It isn’t. I would bet that most of these were first drafts, and that none of them had been spell-checked; the authors thought they could speak English just fine, so what did they need to study sentence structure or punctuation for?

It’s enough to drive a reasonable person right off the cliff. No wonder slush-readers get dyspeptic.

* Follow simple directions. The 97% I refer to above was actually only about 10% of manuscripts I received. The initial 90% arriving at my desk did not follow submission guidelines. So they didn’t even make it past the starting gate.

Let me be ruthlessly honest here. (You knew I would be, anyway.) Submissions guidelines exist for two reasons: to make it easier for the agents to organize, and to find out which “writers” can obey simple rules. If you cannot follow simple submissions guidelines (here’s an example of simple guidelines,) how in the bloody blue blazes can an agent or editor trust you with complex revision tasks, overlapping schedules or in-house proofing rules?

Do not underestimate the utility of a brief, polite email or long-distance call to simply inquire if the posted submissions guidelines are still relevant or if they’ve changed. Do your homework, read the directions, read the listings in Writer’s Market. It will get your manuscript past the first gate.

* Be a flippin’ professional. (This is part of the SECRET-that-isn’t.) You expect an agent to spend his/her time (which is money, because they get paid according to what they sell) pushing your book? You expect a publisher to lay out an advance, the cost of paper, the cost of man-hours editing and typesetting, and the cost of marketing to publish your book? When they don’t initially know you from Adam?

Puh-leeze. You have to EARN that trust before they open their checkbooks. Part of earning that trust is acting like this is a job, and acting according to reasonable rules of human politeness.

A lot of people try to break into publishing because they have a bone-deep belief that they are Speshul and that regular rules don’t apply to them. A teaspoon of that self-love might be healthy, but more than that is like too much pepper–it turns a tasty dish into an inedible mess. Yes, you’re Speshul. Just like everyone else. And like everyone else, you need to get along with other human beings or you won’t get what you want.

Writing is a weird Jekyll-and-Hyde sort of career. There’s just YOU and THE PAGE for a great deal of it. Then there’s the other bit, where you have to get along with agents and editors, not to mention readers at conventions and signings. People skills are necessary, as are patience and a thick skin. You have to avoid and deal with the hard sell. (Hint: it doesn’t work.)

* Be patient, and continue. Agents and editors are constantly looking out for new, fresh voices. They are also constantly swamped. Publishing is a waiting game. While you’re waiting for a rejection letter, you could drive yourself crazy–or you could be working on the next book. The former will drive you, well, crazy. The latter gives you something to do, gives you practice, and widens the number of manuscripts you can have out in the world looking for a home. I call this the “shotgun theory” of publishing. If you keep writing and submitting properly, the chances keep going up that something that you’ve written will find a home somewhere.

I often mention that I was lucky, because a lot of things fell into place for me career-wise. What I say right afterward (and what a lot of newbie “writers” ignore) is that I worked very hard for eight to ten years before my first moment of luck, and worked my ass off afterward so that when more luck came, I was ready to take full advantage of it instead of letting it wither. Flogging just one manuscript is a fool’s game, despite the occasional lottery-winning one-manuscript wonder. I’d rather pay the rent consistently.

* Don’t be precious. I guarantee you, the agents and editors have seen it all before. They’ve had people try to bribe them with chocolate and other assorted things. They’ve had manuscripts arrived on scented, colored paper. They’ve been the victims of well-meaning but incredibly creepy self-promotion from anxious and overeager writers. Don’t be That Guy.

No, you don’t “just need a good book.” You need hard work, professionalism, people skills–all those things you need to be successful in any career, and especially any freelance arts career. Mind you, I’m not saying that people skills can cover up a pile of crap in manuscript form, either. But when I’m working as an editor and I’m given a choice between a Werke of Geeenyus from a Preshus Speshul Snoflake Who The Rules Don’t Apply To or a reasonably solid and decent manuscript from a Professional, I will inevitably take the latter. Because manuscripts can be revised and edited and helped. Speshul Snowflakes…can’t.

Over and out.